By Pvt. Emily V. Knitter, 1 BCT-A, 3 ID, USD-CMarch 12, 2010
BAGHDAD - Hours before election sites opened March 7, Iraqi Security Forces and their U.S. military counterparts patrolled the streets in search of improvised explosive devices among the roadside trash and any evidence of enemy activity.
Insurgents attempted to disrupt the election process by planting more than 30 devices in the Baghdad area. Despite the attacks, more than 50 percent of registered voters still turned out, said Lt. Col. Kirk Dorr, 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry commander.
"I think it was a last-gasp attempt by these extremist groups to intimidate the populace," said Lt. Col. Dorr. "They know, like our counterparts know, that this is really their last shot to interrupt the democratic road map for this country - and they failed."
The general elections were the second in Iraqi history, and the first time Iraqi soldiers and police officers have had a large-scale opportunity to prove they are capable of protecting the citizens of Iraq without the help of U.S. forces. Throughout the day, ISF units responded to insurgent attacks and kept the polling sites secure.
"Every day, we have new training developments for the soldiers according to the changes in attack methods," said Brigadier General Faisel Malik Mohsin al Zamili, 5th Brigade Federal Police commander. "A lot of IEDs went off today in our sector, but they were all outside the polling site, which is a positive point for our forces and is also evidence that the security forces are holding ground and securing the polling sites as needed. If we compare how many IEDs exploded today and how many people got injured - just a couple were injured - which is a good thing."
Two people were killed during the largest attack inside Brig. Gen. al Zamili's area of operations.
Attackers destroyed a house soon after the polls opened in the morning. A family of seven was inside when the device went off, but all of them survived the blast and were pulled from the wreckage with only minor injuries by Iraqi firefighters and ISF first responders.
"Two civilians lost their lives as they were walking by on the street when [the building] exploded, but the family inside the building [was safe]," said Brig. Gen. al Zamili.
That the insurgents chose to attack a local home, instead of a more public location, is a direct credit to the security in place by federal and local Iraqi forces prior to and during the elections, said Lt. Col. Dorr.
"Fifth brigade, 2nd Military Police created that bubble around the polling sites that allowed the citizens to cast their votes safely," said Dorr. "I think that's a huge compliment to the approach we took to create that security zone. I think the insurgents recognized that and decided to take another avenue, a very vicious avenue, which is to go directly to a residential location and detonate a device like that."
Brigadier General al Zamili said the first responders and firefighters were the reason the rescue of the trapped family was so successful. While the loss of life is tragic, he said the attack proved the terrorists only desire to harm the populace, reason enough for all citizens to cooperate with security forces in finding the terrorists.
The attacks, seen throughout the Baghdad area, were notably smaller and less devastating than attacks in past years, said Lt. Col. Dorr.
"Predominately, the insurgents have transitioned to a lower scale, lower impact explosive device. They are smaller devices used, not so much to inflict casualties, but to intimidate, to cause fear among the populace," said Lt. Col. Dorr. "I think we are seeing a turning point here because the insurgents' strength is diminishing over time. You can see it every day; you can see it as the Iraqi Security Forces are getting more powerful. The insurgent's capabilities of carrying out large scale attacks, with strategic impact, are getting less and less."
As the day progressed, fewer and fewer explosions were heard throughout the city. As the afternoon continued, more and more people continued to fill the streets, enthusiastic about casting their votes.
Lieutenant Colonel Dorr gave some credit to the insurgents for the populace's decision to participate in the elections.
"When the Iraqi people see that kind of innocent suffering, and the targeting of innocent civilians, I think at this juncture they are tired of it," he said. "They are absolutely tired of it and they want another option. And they are going to stand up and vote for representatives for whom bringing back security is their number one priority."
The course of events didn't surprise Brig. Gen. al Zamili.
"It was just like we expected," he said. "The enemy tried their attacks in the morning to bring the civilians' motivation down so they don't walk to the polling site and vote. But the enemy was not successful with that. That is why we saw groups of people walking to the polling sites."
To Brig. Gen. al Zamili, it doesn't matter which candidate wins or loses in the elections. March 7 represents a new future for Iraq.
"Change is not easy, it's difficult; but a slow pace is better," he said. "The government is better than it was before. The past elections created the government that is in power today, and these elections will improve the new government in the same way."
To Lt. Col. Dorr, the big winners were the ISF and the Iraqi people.
"I think it's a proud day and that although we did see some loss of life, which is a tragic situation, it's not going to stop this country's march forward, and the freedom that this country enjoys now is directly a result of the blood and sweat of the Iraqi Security Forces," said Lt. Col. Dorr. "At this point, not only are the Federal Police truly in the lead, the capability of this organization, compared to what it was, is absolutely phenomenal and they are prepared today to carry out this mission unilaterally.
"There are some enablers that they are working on to assist their forces, but for the most part they are standing on their own two feet," he said. "Today was a fine example of that."
As the elections drew to a close, the streets filled with children kicking soccer balls amongst the trash. On the buildings and fences surrounding them, campaign posters covered virtually every open space.
Engrossed in their moment, the children ignored the collage of faces and slogans; a sea of images that one day could be replaced by their own to shape a new direction for Iraq.